CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, the founder of the blog Latino Rebels joins us to talk about the portrayal of Hispanics in politics and pop culture.
But first, the threat of a government shutdown has pushed several important issues off the front burner in Congress, one of the biggest is immigration. Comprehensive reform seems off the table, at least for the moment. So immigrants' rights advocates are pressing for executive action on the issue. That includes a halt to deporting the parents of U.S.-born children. The Pew Research Center says there are 4.5 million kids under the age of 18 who have at least one parent who's an undocumented immigrant. Joining us now to talk about it is Monica Faulkner. She's a social worker and associate director of the Child and Family Research Institute at the University of Texas Austin, and she works with families who are facing these issues. And also with us is Ted Robbins. He's the NPR correspondent in Tucson, Arizona. Welcome to both of you.
TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Good morning
MONICA FAULKNER: Hi, thanks for having me.
ROBBINS: Hello, hello.
HEADLEE: Ted, let me begin with you. How much of an issue is this particular portion of the immigrants' fight - the fight to keep the United States from deporting the parents of American-born children?
ROBBINS: I think it's one of the more tender issues, is the best way I can put it. I'm not quite sure how important it is in the grand scheme of things, in terms of the government, but it is sort of, I would say, it's one wrong in terms of tenderness above the DREAMers who were granted deferred action. Those are the young people who were brought to the country illegally.
HEADLEE: Right, at a very young age. They weren't born here. When you say tender, you mean that it calls up sort of an emotional positive feeling when people think about it?
ROBBINS: Yeah. I think it's - right. And I think you would get more...
ROBBINS: You would certainly get more sympathy than keeping folks who were convicted of violent offenses.
HEADLEE: All right, so, Monica, maybe this isn't a big political issue, but how big of an issue is it in terms of the numbers? How many kids are in this position? They're in foster care because their parents have been deported?
FAULKNER: Well, that's a really interesting question. We actually don't have good data on that. Child welfare agencies don't keep that information. They don't collect it. And from the immigration side, we know how many parents have been deported, but nobody tracks what happens to their kids. So we have some best guesses on the number of kids in foster care, but there's no actual number that we have.
HEADLEE: OK. So what do parents of American-born children do? I mean, I would assume that being deported and leaving your kids in the foster care system would be the very last thing any of these parents would want. They must go through certain steps to try to avoid that from happening besides avoiding deportation. Right, Monica?
FAULKNER: Yeah. So from my social work practice experience - I definitely worked with families - and definitely what we're seeing is people keep their kids out of the system by planning ahead. And so we recently just collected data this summer from about 40 undocumented parents, and we asked them, what are your plans if you get deported? And people have thought this through. We are definitely hearing that people have plans. They know that they can go to their church. They know their relatives will take their kids. And so one of the strengths really of the Latino-immigrant community that we don't hear talked about that much is that if there had been 200,000 parents who have been deported and only a fraction of those have gone into foster care, this community is taking care of its own. They're keeping their kids out of the system.
HEADLEE: Well, let me bring it back to politics then with you, Ted. President Obama created a program, specifically for those DREAMers that you mentioned - the kids that were brought here at a very young age - and he's working on this program to give them legal status, where they can earn that. What about these other kids whose parents are undocumented? Is the president working on anything for them?
ROBBINS: Well, these kids - those kids are - the kids themselves - we're talking about U.S. citizen kids.
ROBBINS: Yeah, so he doesn't have to work anything for them, they're in the country legally.
HEADLEE: No, but they need their parents.
ROBBINS: Well, right. They need their parents, and what he is - he did put out a directive - or ICE did, Immigration and Customs Enforcement - which was supposedly to seek alternatives to deporting parents with minor children. But in fact, what does is it appoints a coordinator. I mean, they recognize the problem. So they're appointing a supervisor for parental rights at field offices, and the idea here is really not to keep the parents in the country or from detention.
What it does is it ensures that detained and removed parents and their guardians maintain a relationship with the children, and they're supposedly to take that into best interest. I think in practice - you know, this is actually fairly new. I think in practice, this is going to be implemented spottily because historically ICE offices run differently depending on where they are. In LA, they work differently than they do in New York or in Texas. And I think what we're going to look at - or what we're starting to see already is parents will be, for instance, if they have children in California and they're taken into detention, they'll be placed in detention in Arizona instead of in Florida.
HEADLEE: I see.
ROBBINS: Supposedly, making it easier to stay in touch.
HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the kids who are left behind - the American children who are left behind when their parents are deported. Our guests are NPR correspondent Ted Robbins and Monica Faulkner of the Child and Family Research Institute at the University of Texas in Austin. So, Monica, what happens when these parents who were deported and their kids were put in foster care, what happens when those parents try to get custody of their kids back?
FAULKNER: Once kids are in the foster care system, they are entering into an extremely complex system. So you have families that are interacting with the immigration system, which is complex, and then the foster care system. And the two systems don't really interact with each other historically, and so getting a child back who's in foster care is going to be difficult for parents if those two agencies are not interacting and talking to each other.
There are barriers that parents might face in communicating with their kids if they are in a detention facility. There have been stories of parents who are not able to call into court hearings or even attend court hearings, despite the fact that the family court judge wants them there. So it's tough for those parents to meet the requirements of a child welfare system to get their kids back when they are detained or they're in another country and communication lines just aren't open.
HEADLEE: So, Ted, I mean, once the furor over the government shutdown wears away - and we have no idea how long that will be 'cause, you know, it kind of depends on whether the government shuts down and how long that lasts - but once that does kind of fade into memory, do you think immigration will again be a major priority? Or is the best chance at reforms coming from the president, coming from executive action?
ROBBINS: Well, and that can only go so far, right? So the Senate, as we know, passed the comprehensive bill, and House Republicans don't want a comprehensive bill. They want separate bills. And I think the closer it gets to election-year, which is - next year is midterms - the less likely it gets. And what you've got here - since we're talking about Congress - I don't think most people realize that Congress has mandated that 34,000 detention beds be filled every night, and those are mostly private prison, some county jail beds. And so there's a legal imperative there that was a Congressional directive to pick up people. And that's kind of...
HEADLEE: Let me reiterate 'cause...
ROBBINS: ...That's driving one end of that.
HEADLEE: Let me reiterate that, Ted. That's a stunning statistic. Congress has made it a requirement that 34,000 beds be filled with undocumented immigrants every night.
ROBBINS: That's right. So no matter how much prosecutorial discretion or changes in status for parents - raising the status of parents - that kind of thing, you're still faced - you're bumped up against that imperative for Congress. So what we're talking about all the way on this conversation - I think swirling around this conversation is mixed messages.
HEADLEE: Right. Well, Monica, I want to go back to the options for these families. I mean, you talked a little bit about how they prepare for deportation - trying to make sure that their kids will either be taken in by a family or by a church. I assume there are also the options for families to take their kids with them over the border. How many families choose to do that or why would they not?
FAULKNER: So what we're hearing from our families is some of them clearly say, if I have to go back I want my kids to stay here. And those families are generally ones who have relatives here and they feel that the school system is better, it's safer, and their kids are a little bit older and older kids tend to want to stay. However, with the younger kids, we see parents saying, I would do whatever I could to cross back over or get my kids sent over to me. And that's really complicated. I think it's a situation - a family by family basis of what their plans are and what's the best for their kids.
HEADLEE: But it's not an option once someone is picked up by law enforcement to just have their kid and be deported with the child?
FAULKNER: Not to my understanding.
ROBBINS: Well, Celeste, can I interrupt?
ROBBINS: These are U.S. citizen children. You can't deport a U.S. citizen.
HEADLEE: But the parents can't take the kid with them?
ROBBINS: Oh, they could - well, they could, but they're in custody.
HEADLEE: I see.
ROBBINS: So let me give you - can I give you just an example?
HEADLEE: You may.
ROBBINS: I was in Nogales, Sonora about a month ago, and I was working on a couple of stories. I interviewed a couple who - a husband and wife - who had been deported. They were going back to Mexico to visit her father who was dying. And then they were caught coming back into the country. They lived in Stockton, California. They had two children, one minor and one who was over the age of 18 - who were still in Stockton. And they were caught, they were put in detention and then they were deported. I asked them what their kids were doing - they were on their own. They had family members nearby. And I think this - you know, this shores up what Monica was saying - and their response was we're going back. We're going to try again.
ROBBINS: ...We don't want to leave our kids alone.
HEADLEE: I can imagine. Ted Robbins is NPR's national desk correspondent in Tucson, Arizona. And we also heard from Monica Faulkner, social worker and associate director of the Child and Family Research Institute at the University of Texas in Austin. Thank you both so much.
ROBBINS: You're welcome.
FAULKNER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.